Anne Azéma and the Boston Camerata presented a diverse and fascinating program Friday night, March 5th, at First Lutheran Church. With the church’s draped Lenten cross as a backdrop, Azéma, with mezzo-soprano Deborah Rentz-Moore, soprano Lydia Brotherton, and Robert Mealy (on harp and vielle), presented “The Maria Monologues”—an exploration of the many faces and dimensions of “Mary” in the Middle Ages.
The program was divided into three parts. The first explored the Annunciation and ensuing Magnificat, as the Virgin Mary grapples with the extraordinary news that she will give birth to the Savior. Opening with a 13th-century cantiga, “Des oge mais,” Anne Azéma instantly brought the audience into the narrative with her engaging and communicative style. The interpolation of William Butler Yeats “The Mother of God” was expertly crafted, weaving Mary through the 12th century up through a modern Mary who honestly admits, “The terror of all terrors that I bore/The Heavens in my womb.” Azéma, Brotherton and Rentz-Moore all have distinctive styles as singers and performers, and it was both their individuality as well as their ability to blend magically into a sort of amalgamated Mary that made the evening’s performance so successful.
The second section of the program, “The Dawn Approaching” placed the two Marys (Magadalene and the Blessed Virgin) at the foot of the Cross. In the “Stabat iuxta Christi crucem,” from the 13th-century Las Huelgas codex, the singers offered a nuanced delivery of the dissonant “Intus martyr consecratur/intus sui iugulatur/mater agni gladio” (Inwardly she is being nailed to the cross, inwardly the mother is being slain, by the sword of her Lamb being slain). Azéma spoke to the audience of how Mary as mother would be the voice of the congregation during a Passion play, and there was no greater expression of this than her own performance of the 13th-century Marien Klage, accompanied by the mournful yet beautiful sonorities of Mealy’s vielle. Her heart-wrenching descending cries of “Dot cum nym us beyde” (Death, come take us both!) and “syn dot mik dodet” (His death kills me) brought forth the universal in grief.
The closing section was given over to the ambiguous and multi-dimensional figure of Mary Magdalene. Rentz-Moore became a 13th-century Carmen in her depiction of the heavily rouged Mary in “Mihi confer, venditor, species emendas” from the Carmina Burana texts, bringing an earthy relevance to Mary’s joy in worldly love. Lydia Brotherton’s redeemed and penitent Mary in “Chanter voel par grant amor” showcased her amazingly pure and lyrical singing, which beautifully balanced the sultry richness of Rentz-Moore’s voice. Both women shone in the dialogue between Mary Magdalene and the angel at the tomb, excerpted from the 13th century Origny Mystery Play.
Watching Azéma sing, while playing the organistrum, was the most visual pleasure of the evening. She performed much of the repertoire as folksong, with an affability and ease that made the music all the more accessible. Particularly in tandem with Mealy’s virtuosic performance on the vielle, these two performers demonstrated why “early music” deserves a more prominent place in the mainstream and shouldn’t be relegated to historical artifact status. The final benediction, offered by all four performers, was a glorious and life-affirming reminder that florid organum is no less a legitimate musical experience than a Bach chorale or a Beethoven symphony.